Holy Jerusalem

Here is a little thought experiment. Imagine that both the Islamic world and the Palestinian nation suddenly agreed that the mosques on the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem's old city were not that holy after all; that the Jews were welcome to take them down and build a temple if they wanted to. Could Jews really want this? Okay, forget the animal sacrifices. I mean a temple that, whatever its rites, purports to be ground zero of divinity, the building of buildings on the spot of spots--the here and now of a holy of holies. If Jews believed in such things would they be practicing Judaism at all?

This is not a merely hypothetical question. Very few Jews speak seriously about rebuilding the temple in question, but very many--perhaps a majority--are deadly serious about the divinity of the mount in question. From the mayor on down, ordinary Jews in this city seem overwhelmed by the mount's gravitational pull. Close, it is said, matters only when playing at horseshoes, but close also matters greatly when playing at Jerusalem. Most reject out of hand any notion of surrendering Israeli sovereignty over the mount. They think next to nothing (to take just one example) of leveling the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in order to build a kind of biblical theme park close to the mount. Even secular writers say casuistic things like "there is no Zionism without Zion," Zion being the mount overlooking the mount. (In fact, the original halutzim, and Zionism's Emerson, Achad Haam, avoided the place, but never mind.)

JUST TO BE clear, I am not speaking here about "holy" in the garden-variety sense of being understandably valued, sacred in the way your dead father's tallis is sacred, or even possessing what Walter Benjamin called "aura." I don't mean a very, very important place of prayer, a place of utmost authenticity, a place whose stones and contours organize a collective experience that harkens back to a cherished remembered experience. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is holy for Christians in this sense: they don't know where Christ was actually crucified, but they know (as Mark Twain writes) where others before them acted as if they knew. It is good enough for pilgrims to follow in the footsteps of pilgrims.

Indeed, the Noble Sanctuary, whose gorgeous mosques still call the faithful to prayer, is holy even to vaguely secular Muslims in just this sense. Who knows exactly where Mohammed ascended to heaven? Nobody. But all know where generations since the 7th. century ascended to pray. Similarly, the Wailing Wall (whose sovereignty is not in dispute) is "holy" for most every Jew. The night my son was born, in June 1973, I myself cradled my head in its stones and shared my joy with my deceased parents. But I did not do so because I thought I was close to the destroyed ancient arc of the covenant. Rather, I thought I was close to the ghosts of the many Jews who had wept there before me, nursing their losses and mysterious hopes.

Anyway, Jews who claim the Temple Mount today mean holy in a more muscular sense than this. Their Psalmist's Hebrew often sounds like a mental straight-jacket. They imply that the soil of the mount carries traces of God's existence, like basements carry radon. They mean holy in the take-off-your-sandals sense of the word: objectively dangerous, not subjectively poignant. They mean something they are prepared to take on the whole world for, fight and die (and kill) for. Is this Judaism?

MY WIFE SIDRA DeKoven Ezrahi writes more eloquently about these matters than I can here. But even on their surface, her answers make you wonder where traditional Judaism has disappeared to, and how crazed Jerusalem is making its inhabitants. For Judaism, Sidra explains, has always been a religion of distance from the divine, a religion of substitutions. The synagogue is a mikdash m'at, a little temple, that stands-in for the place that is gone, the way debate over Jewish law stands-in for a divine intention, and the Torah stands-in for a God that--so the Torah says--cannot be seen face to face. To put things simply, perhaps a little melodramatically, if the ancient temple were to magically appear, Jews--who are, after all, not just ancient Judeans--would have to destroy it themselves, much the way they would have to break idols and reject a man who claimed to be God.

The Wailing Wall, insofar as it is a kind of synagogue, has something authentic for traditional Jews, she concedes, but not really because of where it is. The wall gestures, like all synagogues only more so, toward what is missing (as does the golden-domed Mosque of Omar, ironically). The wall suggests the supersession of a form of worship which has been long abandoned, and was challenged by Pharisees even in its time--abandoned for good (Hegel might say cunning) reasons that Roman centurions could hardly understand when they tore the temple down: a self-perpetuating priesthood, a hierarchy of fetishists, a sacrificial cult, a comic understanding of sin.

Sidra insists that, after the temple was destroyed, Jews were left, not with divine places or stuff, but only metaphor (God is like this, God is like that). This invitation to poetic innovation engendered our talent for freedom. The Wailing Wall's holiness depends on the Temple Mount being bare of anything meaningful for Jews except for the reminder of the immensity of absence itself. The wall is the evocative symbol (in a religion of symbols) of what is no longer there and, by itself, no longer evocative.

Nor does one have to be a Jew to grasp Sidra's point. My friend Jim Carroll was once asked if his faith in the Resurrection would be shaken if the bones of Jesus were found. No, he said, and he meant pretty much the same thing. Perhaps the most beautiful contemporary work I have seen about the supersession Sidra is talking about is Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal. (Trust me: see the film and you'll understand.)

In any case, something new is happening in this city, and it isn't either the Judaism I knew as a child or a return to an ancient practice. It is a hybrid politicized religion, if that's the word; a new claim of return, much like Mussolini's claim to return to Rome; a claim carried by ward-of-the-state orthodox families averaging seven children each, reinforced by neo-Zionist devotion to settlement, and a deep sense of grievance over a more recent destruction of European life, what Sidra calls Judaism's new "ruined shrines."

Make no mistake: the people who wish this new Jerusalem to rise will not be talked out of their goals, certainly not by speeches or editorials (or bloggers). The only hope is that what's left of Israel's secular majority will be pushed, and supported, by what's left of the West to stop them. One more generation, I am tempted to say, and it will be too late. But nothing is ever too late for this benighted, beautiful city, which thrives on the hubris of every conqueror.